Key point: Statements made to other church members concerning a matter of common interest are protected by a "qualified privilege," meaning that they cannot be defamatory unless made with malice.
An Ohio court ruled that church board members who wrote a letter asking their pastor to resign on account of his failing health were not guilty of defamation.
A pastor sued all 12 members of the board of deacons of his former church as a result of a letter the board had sent to him. The letter was written following a series of meetings and expressed the deacons' belief that the pastor's health problems prevented him from performing his duties effectively. The letter stated, in pertinent part:
[I]t is the opinion of the Deacon Board that [your resignation] is necessary to protect the health and vitality of [the church]. We are thoroughly convinced that your general health and physical condition prohibit you from effectively performing your pastoral responsibilities. Additionally, we are convinced that the spirituality within the church has reached a point that the only logical alternative is to change pastoral leadership. We simply need a pastor that is capable of providing creative leadership, new ideas, and visionary direction. Our church must be restored to its historical and enriched heritage.
The letter requested that the pastor either retire or resign and stated that if he did not elect one of these alternatives, the deacons would recommend to the church congregation that his services as pastor be terminated. The pastor responded to the deacons' request by informing them that he would neither retire nor resign. The deacons then called for a special meeting of the congregation and distributed to those members present copies of the letter they had sent the pastor. At this meeting, the congregation requested that the pastor retire and approved the terms and conditions of his retirement package. The pastor retired at this meeting. He later sued the board of deacons for defamation. The trial court "directed a verdict" in favor of the deacons before it heard all the evidence. This is an extraordinary action indicating that a lawsuit lacks any merit. The pastor appealed.
A state appeals court ruled that even if the letter signed by the deacons was defamatory, it was protected by a "qualified privilege." A qualified privilege protects "communications made in good faith on any subject matter in which the person communicating has an interest, or in reference to which he has a duty [if such communication is] made to a person having a corresponding interest or duty …." This privilege typically applies to statements made by church members to other church members regarding matters of common interest. For such statements to be defamatory, they must be made with "legal malice," meaning that the defamatory statements were made "with knowledge that the statements are false [or with a] reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity." The court concluded that the deacons' letter was protected by the qualified privilege. It observed:
Our review of the evidence in this case indicates that the deacons properly raised the defense of qualified privilege … and that the evidence adduced at trial during the presentation of [the pastor's] case clearly established the elements necessary for application of the qualified privilege, as a matter of law. The letter in question concerned various church interests, i.e., [the pastor's] perceived inability to perform his pastoral duties and to inspire the congregation in light of his health problems and the need to restore the spirituality of the church. It was written by members of the congregation of the church, i.e., the deacons, and published exclusively to other members of the church. No evidence was established at trial that any nonmembers were either given or otherwise received a copy of the letter. Furthermore, the letter was sent to [the pastor] prior to any publication and was limited in scope to informing him of the deacons' concern as to his leadership and the future of the church if he did not resign or retire. From this evidence, we conclude that the deacons were entitled to the defense of qualified privilege. Therefore, [the pastor] could only … recover for defamation if he could prove by clear and convincing evidence that the deacons acted with actual malice in publishing the letter ….
The court concluded that the pastor failed to prove that the deacons acted with legal malice, and accordingly the letter was not defamatory. It observed:
[T]he actual malice standard applied in defamation cases is defined as "acting with knowledge that the statements are false or acting with reckless disregard as to their truth or falsity." At trial, [the pastor] seemed to concede that the deacons did not act with knowledge that the statements were false. Rather, he attempted to prove actual malice by asserting that the deacons' failure to contact [the pastor's] doctors or consult the church records immediately prior to drafting the letter amounted to reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of the statements contained therein. While it is true that the deacons consulted neither [the pastor's] doctors nor the church records immediately prior to drafting the letter, we see no reason why the deacons would be required to consult these specific sources to establish the truth of their statements. Numerous other sources of information were available to them for this purpose. For instance, several of the deacons testified that they came to the conclusion that [the pastor's] health was affecting the leadership of the church through their conversations with members of the congregation, their independent observations of his performance, and repeated discussions during official meetings regarding the deteriorating financial condition and membership of the church. Thus, the deacons did have a factual foundation for their opinion concerning the effect of [the pastor's] health on his performance as pastor and did not act in reckless disregard as to the truth or falsity of their statements in the letter.
What this means for churches
This case demonstrates the legal protection that is extended to communications made among church members. However, as the court pointed out, the qualified privilege does not apply to communications shared with nonmembers. The court stressed that the deacons' letter "was written by members of the congregation of the church, i.e., the deacons, and published exclusively to other members of the church. No evidence was established at trial that any nonmembers were either given or otherwise received a copy of the letter." This is a very important principle for church leaders to keep in mind when they are considering the dissemination of information. Mosley v. Evans, 630 N.E.2d 75 (Ohio App. 11 Dist. 1993).PCL4B2, PCL4B3e